In case you missed the previous post, I’ve begun a project with the aim of getting the regional government to start a program to combat littering, which seems something of a national pastime in these parts.
As part of that – the “shock and awe” phase – I’m taking geotagged photos of garbage on the route I take to my boys’ schools in order to create a map which shows the extent of the problem.
In short, I’m proposing a campaign that integrates serious fines for littering with a public service barrage akin to the ‘Don’t Mess With Texas‘ program that reduced rubbish on Texas roadways by over 70%, and which continues to resonate in the state.
So on an unseasonably cold day, with grubby clouds scudding across a low gray sky, I set off to do a section of road near the local hospital.
Photographing, picking up. Photographing, picking up. Soon the big black garbage bag I was lugging along was full. Photographing, picking up.
Now stooping repeatedly to gather up the spent cigarette packs, the beer cans, the dirty diapers that your neighbors somehow couldn’t bring themselves to take home and dispose of properly does not tend to engender warm and fuzzy feeling for your fellow man. After a couple of hours of stooping-and-lugging my back began to ache, and progress seemed painfully slow.
Then a car slowed to a stop beside me. I had anticipated the possibility of people stopping to ask what it was I was doing, so I had a whole speech prepared in sloppy Spanish of my aims and objectives. My lofty goals. My over-arching plan to kindle in the tinder-dry hearts of the local populace a flame of environmental consciousness.
A doughy elderly woman leaned out from her window, the fat around her eyes crinkling as she gave me a grandmotherly smile.
“Could you tell me how to get to the hospital?” she asked.
“A hundred meters up the road on the left,” I answered, somewhat crestfallen. A dirty drizzle began to dribble from the sky.
Twenty minutes later another car saddled alongside me, my bulging black sack, my aching back. One look at the gray-faced passengers and I didn’t even wait for the question.
“Setenta metros, a la izquierda.”
Fifty meters and a hundred plastic bottles farther along, a young woman on a scooter pulled up and – a promising sign – shut off the motor. Her toned skin looked decidedly non-tubercular, and my hopes soared that here at last was a kindred spirit with whom I could share my project, rope into helping me on my quixotic quest.
“Have you seen a little brown dog?” she asked.
I crumpled like a run-over cerveza can. “A brown dog?”
My mind said: “Oh, yeah, I saw it. Squashed like a hairy pizza. I tossed it in my bag along with all of the other fucking garbage.”
My mouth said: “Nope. Is it yours?”
Turns out she didn’t even have a dog, had just seen this one and was concerned about its welfare. In fact, it might not have even been a dog. Maybe a baby pig. The renowned French zoologist Georges Cuvier was said to be able to identify a particular species by examining a single bone – Cuvier this lady was not. A dog, or maybe a pig.
“I just thought,” she explained, “since you were out here picking up garbage you might have seen it.”
She said this as though it was completely routine to see people out collecting rubbish on the roadside.
My mind said: “Have you ever seen anyone else out here cleaning up garbage? Is it a common sight to see citizens not clad in orange prison garb scouring the countryside for other people’s trash? Have you considered why someone might find it necessary to come out here and pick up your shit?”
My mouth said: “Nope. Haven’t seen it. Adios.”
Then I saw it. Not the dog-pig. The straw. The proverbial straw. You know, the one that breaks the camel’s back.
Lying on the side of the road was an empty iPad box, tossed there since the last rain, so not more than a couple of days old. “Oh, ho, ho, you,” I muttered, smiling ruefully. “You silly person.”
I wish that it had gone like that. In fact, it went something more like this – and keep in mind that I’d been out there for hours with a dull rain spitting on my bald head, schlepping bags of garbage and envisioning my children’s future playing out as a kind of ragged dystopian amalgamation of ‘Road Warrior’ and ‘Wall-E’:
“You fucking piece of shit. You went out and bought an iPad, then couldn’t wait until you got home to unbox that wondrous technological marvel that would allow you to broaden your world with kiddie porn and cats playing the ukelele. You couldn’t manage to put the packaging in a bin, let alone recycle it, so you threw it out of the car window you sorry fucking excuse for a selfish antisocial littering psychotic fuckwad shitwit motherfucking moronic noxious toxic dickfuckinghead!”
By the end my voice had risen to a roar, so it took a moment for the mental mists to clear and for me to see the elderly couple gaping at me from across the street.
I gave them a smile which, in retrospect, probably looked more like the grimace of a rabid badger, waved at them in what I considered an I’m-really-not-a-dangerous-lunatic kind of way, and guiltily stuffed the iPad box in my garbage bag. It was not a high point in my nascent social awareness campaign.
Today I collected four black bags of litter along that same road. But the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and three passing cars gave me a honk and a smile and a wave. You have no idea what that kind of support, even if it’s only moral and completely passive, can give a guy in yellow rubber gloves and trash-spattered trousers.
Instead of brooding over post-apocalyptic visions of a world waist-deep in waste, I brainstormed about ways in which I could get this project off the ground, spun out threads of ideas that just might be woven into a cohesive plan, one in which even selfish antisocial littering psychotic fuckwad shitwits might eventually come around and prove to be a force for good.
Tonight my oldest son asked me, “Daddy, some weekend, instead of going hiking, could I help you pick up garbage?” I could have kissed him. In fact, I did. “You bet we can, D, you bet we can.”